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Electoral politics can’t solve climate change

Global warming isn’t a technical problem, it’s a power imbalance problem

EnvironmentSocial Movements

A protester holds a sign at the climate strike in Nürnberg, September 2019. Photo by Markus Spiske/Unsplash.

Like many dedicated volunteers last month, I spent hours doorknocking, phonebanking, and speaking with friends and colleagues about one of our federal candidates.

But I didn’t volunteer for Avi Lewis’s campaign because I support the NDP or because I think Avi would’ve been a deciding vote for climate in a Liberal minority government.

Perversely enough, I volunteered for Avi’s campaign because I firmly believe that we cannot solve the climate crisis through electoral politics. Instead, I believe, as Bill McKibben recently put it, that “the answer to climate change is organizing.”

The last century of history in countries like ours has made it clear: scientific consensus and overwhelming public support are not enough to drive transformative social change. Eighty-nine percent of Canadians support a wealth tax and 85 percent of British Columbians want old growth forests protected (and have for years), but you wouldn’t know it from our political discourse. Broadly popular policies of all stripes have a hard time breaking through our systems of representative government.

In terms of climate policy, the science has been clear for four decades, but governments have utterly failed to act. The risks associated with the combustion of fossil fuels became public in the late 1980s (though fossil fuel companies and governments knew about them far earlier). By 1992, we had formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and in 1997, most nations signed the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. In 2011, Canada withdrew from Kyoto with its emissions more than 30 percent higher than in 2002. Justin Trudeau signed the Paris agreement in 2015 but today, Canada has the worst emissions record of any G7 nation.

Canada’s emissions record is uniquely bad, but it’s far from alone in climate failure. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently said that, even taking all national commitments on face value, the world is on track for “a hellscape of temperature rises of 2.7C above pre-industrial levels: a catastrophe.” We are “light-years away from reaching our targets.”

All this despite the fact that climate science has been consistent both in its physical modeling and in its prescriptions for nearly half a century. Dr. James Hansen published a paper in 1981 that almost exactly forecast global warming’s path and remains largely in agreement with today’s models. He presciently noted that, “Political and economic forces affecting energy use and fuel choice make it unlikely that the CO2 issue will have a major impact on energy policies until convincing observations of the global warming are in hand” and suggested, as a result, that “large climate change [is] almost inevitable.”

He was right, but he overestimated the ability of the now tangible impacts of climate change to overcome the political and economic forces perpetuating fossil fuel use and simultaneously underestimated the political and narrative-shaping power that comes with market power and wealth.

According to a lawsuit against Exxon, in 1992, 88 percent of Americans believed global warming was a serious problem. In 1997, that number was just 42 percent, primarily because of disinformation campaigns orchestrated by fossil fuel companies and industry groups. As Hansen predicted, the increasingly harmful state of the climate is finally driving public opinion to recover from fossil-funded climate denial, but we now face new forms of obstructionism.

The most powerful in our society hold the controls, and they have a deep investment in the status quo—a status quo that relies on fossil fuels and ever-expanding markets and consumption.

Climate change isn’t a technical problem, it’s a power imbalance problem. And polite participation in electoral politics—perform your civic duty then return to a quiet life of economic production—has never successfully challenged power before. We shouldn’t expect it to be able to now.

Instead, we need to draw our lessons from major social breakthroughs of the past. The fight against Apartheid in South Africa didn’t succeed because the Black South African population decided to vote differently; it succeeded because of mass mobilization and coordinated struggle both within the country and abroad. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t about electing less racist politicians—it was about building collective counterpower with which to force change.

I volunteered for Avi’s campaign for two reasons. First, because platforming people who understand that movement building is critical to climate mitigation will help us build power. And second, because we spent this campaign organizing around climate, not a partisan message. The election was a tool, not an end in itself.

We might see another election in two years, and we’ll use that one too: but in the meantime, we’ll be out in the streets and at Indigenous-led resistance camps, continuing to build the climate movement, blocking the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and demanding nothing less than the science-backed approach: an urgent, managed decline of the fossil fuel industry.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in Squamish, BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.

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